Rumpole Revisited

British author John Mortimer passed away last year, leaving a legacy of some of the best-loved detective novels of the 20th century, featuring the portly and bewigged barrister Horace Rumpole, known to his legions of fans as “Rumpole of the Bailey.” Rumpole was married to the strong-willed Hilda (dubbed by her droll husband as “She Who Must Be Obeyed”), who played a significant (albeit mildly annoying) role in virtually every one of Rumpole’s adventures. Although the books read as if written in an earlier time, in fact the earliest of the series dates from 1980. In all, more than a dozen collections of Rumpole stories were published, as well as several novels. The final collection, A Rumpole Christmas, is a collection of Yuletide-themed short stories, a couple of which verge on novelettes.

In one, Rumpole meets a strangely familiar Father Christmas (England’s version of Santa Claus), a white-bearded charmer with larceny in his heart, at least at the outset. In another, She Who Must Be Obeyed books a holiday stay in “the restful tranquillity of Minchingham Hall”, a health spa intended to shave a number of pounds (both in the avoirdupois and monetary senses) off the rotund Rumpole. His customary libation of cheap wine (“Chateau Thames Embankment”) is to be replaced by yak milk, of which he opines drily, “We were told it is very popular with the mountain tribes of Tibet. It may have tasted fine there, but it didn’t, as they say of some of the finest wines, travel well.”

Two novelettes make up the final half of the book. The first, Rumpole and the Old Familiar Faces, reunites Rumpole with some shady characters from his past, one of whom has crafted a remarkable new identity, another of whom may have managed to commit the “perfect murder”, complete with unassailable alibi. Additionally, Rumpole gets taken in by a resourceful man of the cloth, proving yet again that the Lord works in mysterious ways. In the second novelette, Rumpole and the Christmas Break, our hero defends a would-be terrorist who issued a fatwa on a professor of comparative religions at a London university, shortly after which said professor was murdered. The professor, Honoria Glossop, had written a book on the atrocities committed in the name of religion, and had unwisely included a scathing section on ayatollahs and the cruelty of Islamic fundamentalism. Client Hussein Khan freely admits issuing the fatwa, but avows in no uncertain terms that his hand was not the one to dispatch Honoria Glossop to her final reward. The forensic evidence would seem to lend credence to Khan’s claim, as there was no gunshot residue or blood spatter to be found on his person or clothing, but his demeanor is sufficiently grating that the jury seems strongly inclined to convict unless Rumpole is able to pull the proverbial rabbit out of his hat.

Sadly, A Rumpole Christmas is the last of a brilliant series, one final treat for Mortimer’s readers. By turns hilarious, insightful, timely and timeless, the Rumpole series promises to win readers and critical acclaim well beyond its author’s passing.

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